Uganda move to regulate online activity is tool to curb dissent ahead of polls - rights groups
FILE PHOTO: Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni arrives for the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Rights groups have asked Uganda to reverse a move that requires some social media users to get a licence and pay fees, saying the move is aimed at censoring content critical of the government ahead of a presidential election.

In the election due around February, President Yoweri Museveni, 75, and Africa’s third longest-ruling leader, is seeking another five-year-term which would extend his period in office to 40 years.

He is expected to face competition from pop star and lawmaker Bobi Wine – real name, Robert Kyagulanyi- who has exploited his music to galvanise a large following among young people.

The regulator Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) said in a notice this week that all users of social media and other online users engaged in “communication and broadcasting services” must obtain a license by Oct. 5.

Conditions for a license include paying an annual fee of 100,000 shillings (20.89 pounds) and agreeing to not engage in “distortion of facts” or put out content “likely to create public insecurity.”

UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa denied the move was politically motivated and said it was to make sure all online communicators with large followings do not send out hate speech, and messages which are false or harmful to children.

“Authorities are effectively criminalising the right to freedom of expression online,” Amnesty International said in a statement, adding the regulator should reverse the decision.

Amnesty said the measure “will turn social media into (a)minefield, with users likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.” They added users “may face prosecution simply for expressing their views.”

Uganda’s security forces have in recent months been cracking down on authors and journalists who criticise the government.

UCC has previously said the new regulation targeted heavily-followed individuals on platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

But Amnesty said the measure is overly broad and ambiguous and could potentially target anyone.

Authorities are likely to use the requirement to target and suppress anti-government voices as campaigns get underway, according to Dorothy Mukasa, who heads Unwanted Witness, a Kampala-based digital communications rights watchdog.

Credit: Reuters